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Ad agency John St. rides a Pink Pony to plaudits

A still from from Pink Pony

Talk about turning lemons into lemonade. Like all shops competing in Strategy Magazine's recent Agency of the Year derby, Toronto's John St. prepared a two-and-a-half-minute video for the gala event, which served as their contribution to the evening's entertainment. For the dinner's 2009 edition, they had shot a video of an excruciating focus group in which participants casually tore apart the agency's work. ("The People Have Spoken," said the video. "We Suck.") This time around, they torqued the self-referential angle even further, with a pitch-perfect tongue-in-cheek case study video of the successful marketing campaign behind an eight-year-old girl's birthday party.

The gala crowd loved it. So if John St. executives didn't end the night with any of the top awards, they may have gone home with something more valuable. That's because this week, after someone at the agency posted the video, called Pink Pony, the global ad community put aside its tendency toward reflexive envy of others' great work and sent the thing viral. A tweet from Contagious Magazine said the video was "currently trending in the Contagious offices." Someone else called it "the best piss take of a Cannes case study film ever." AdFreak, the hard-to-impress AdWeek blog, called it "a must-watch."

Pink Pony deploys the laughably familiar tropes of the case study genre: a sombre voiceover recounting The Challenge ("Make Chelsea Bedano's 8th birthday party a success in an already cluttered birthday market"), the use of "word-of-mouth buzz" (inviting the three most popular kids in Chelsea's class to a sleepover one week before the party and letting "the hype build from there"), to the claim of astounding results ("average gift price: $23.45"; "total attendance: 13 (a 40% increase from 2009)"). The video ends with a prototypical bit of agency self-importance: "We didn't just create a birthday. We created a birthday movement."

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According to John St., laudatory e-mails came in from all over, including the chief creative officer of Time Warner in New York and the global creative strategist for Coca-Cola in Atlanta. But viewers, alas, also included someone in the Arcade Fire camp, who called up and asked the video to be taken down, as the band's song Wake Up had been used on the soundtrack without permission. A few hours after it was removed, John St. uploaded the video with a new (albeit less effective) music cut.

On Wednesday afternoon, John St.'s president Arthur Fleischmann acknowledged that, like the creators of other viral successes, he didn't know quite how to capitalize on the frenzy. "The ROI (return on investment), we're still evaluating it," he joked. "Do we expect it to lead to anything? It starts a conversation, and you never know where a conversation may lead. But what it does do is get our name out there with exactly the kind of people we want to get it out there with, and I think it's a really nice example of the kind of work we do: Smart, irreverent, pointed." And pass-around funny.

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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